Plaid must become more than just the safe option

Arfon MP Hywel Williams, pictured here with former Caernarfon MP Dafydd Wigley (left), came within fewer than a hundred votes of defeat. Picture: Plaid Cymru Arfon.

 

Dafydd Trystan, the former chairman of Plaid Cymru, says that the challenges facing the party are more complex than they appear…

The narrow victories in Ceredigion and Arfon were a ‘get out of jail free card’ for Plaid Cymru.

While voters were lost across the country, the seat tally, which is after all what counts in a general election, yielded the best results since 2001.

There is a danger therefore that the Party will sit back, breathe a huge sigh of relief and carry on.

I’d suggest to do that would be a failure to address a significant weakness that has been laid bare by the falling vote share of the 2017 election.

There has already been robust debate about Plaid’s performance at the General Election – here and elsewhere.

I do fear, however, that there may be a temptation to seek simple answers to the strategic dilemmas facing the party when those challenges may be more complex than they appear at first.

In many ways the past decade and more has been one of significant progress for Plaid.

We know from regular polling in Wales that Plaid as a party is well regarded. We also know that Leanne Wood, Plaid’s leader, is particularly well regarded and generally, polls personal ratings that are better than the Party.

We’ve also seen Plaid gain more coverage in UK General Elections than at any time in its history.

But the party’s electoral performance has been at best patchy because people who are well disposed to the party and its leader don’t routinely vote Plaid.

No magic pill

And herein for me lies the key weakness. Plaid’s relative popularity means that it is a safe option for those wishing to lend a vote if their normal choice has in some way behaved poorly.

There have been plenty of examples at both local and national levels where other parties have handled issues badly (or indeed entire elections) and Plaid has taken advantage.

But this success is almost entirely context-dependent.

In order to become a party of government and to realise its long-held ambitions for Wales, Plaid must address this strategic challenge over the next few years.

A number of commentators have already suggested (simplistic) approaches e.g. having nothing to do with Labour (ever), changing the party leader, campaigning hard for Welsh independence.

The difficulty I have with each of these prescriptions is that there is little evidence to suggest that any of these are a magic pill that will cure Plaid’s electoral ills.

Indeed, what evidence there is suggests that some of these approaches could be counter-productive.

The challenge is made all the more complex by the political positioning of the parties.

With Tony Blair in charge of the Labour Party, a consistent left/centre-left approach from Plaid to Welsh politics, chimed with the Welsh electorate.

It is far from clear that ‘Plaid are a way to support Corbyn’s policies’ is in any way a sensible strategy faced with a left-wing Labour leader in the UK and a small ‘n’ nationalist Labour leader in Wales.

Strong foundations

So what is to be done? The first step is to seek to reach a consensus as to the challenges facing the party. Asking the right questions is a good start.

On the answers I’m less clear. The development of key headline policies that can and should be promoted over the next few years would be a start.

How would Plaid improve education in Wales? Or the Health Service? Or have a more robust approach to protecting our environment?

Can anyone name a signature Plaid Westminster election policy? Or a Local Government pledge from a little over a month ago?

More urgent I’d suggest is developing the vision of Plaid councils in action.

Plaid now leads councils spanning most of the West. With apologies to the Leaders of those councils – as I know how difficult these matters are, but what can we say definitively that those four councils will do differently from the neighbouring Labour and Independent-run councils?

I know they will be well run – each of the leaders have significant ability and experience. But what will residents be able to say clearly is different, because it’s a Plaid council?

Plaid has the opportunity in the next few years to move to a higher level of electoral success, based on the foundations that are in place.

But, if the last elections show us anything those foundations are not yet strong enough to withstand a big storm.

With Hywel Williams’ victory in Arfon and Ben Lake’s stunning success in Ceredigion, there is now a window of opportunity to strengthen the foundations.

This is a challenge and a significant task, but one that cannot be ignored, nor can it be minimised. We live in (very) interesting times.

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